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Tracing New York Roots - American Indian Family History

by Deb McCaffery

article from Summer 1994 issue of "New York History" magazine.

American Indians are described as having great pride in, and much love and respect for the family, along with a keen desire to learn more about their ancestry and heritage. But how does an American Indian go about fulfilling this desire? Common historical and genealogical research methods do apply, but there are also a number of special records and cultural characteristics unknown to the non-Indian family history researcher.

According to sources found at the Association's Research Library, one should gather oral history and become familiar with native customs of one's ancestral tribe before looking for official records of any type. Two major problems have been identified when tracing Indian ancestors: naming practices and kinship systems. With regard to naming practices, knowing all the Indian names, as well as English and/or Christian names of your ancestors is advised.

A knowledge of tribal kinship terminology is also a vital pre-requisite to records searching. I found that chapter five in "Kinship and the Family," in Hazel W. Hertzberg's Great Tree and the Longhouse, (New York: MacMillan and Co., 1966), gives a thorough explanation of the Iroquois family system.

It is also advisable to learn the migration patterns of the tribe or tribes being researched along with the Bureau of Indian Affairs agencies involved since they are major custodians of American Indian records. Any tribal offices found in existence may have records as well. These offices were established after the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934.

The largest collections of American Indian records are reported to be at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. as well at its Fort Worth, Texas branch; the Bureau of Indian Affairs, also in Washington, D.C., and its regional federal records centers; the Smithsonian Instituion, Washington, D.C.; and the Latter Day Saints Genealogical Society in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Iroquois tribes, with the exception of the St. Regis Mohawks, are unique in that they are matrilineal - descended through the female line. Children are not recognized in the paternal line of descent. This is one of a number of distinctions one can make concerning Indian and non-Indian family history research. Again, I suggest The Great Tree and the Longhouse for futher clarification on the matrilineal family in Iroquois society.

Intermingling, Removal, Reservation, and Allotment

According to Genelogical Helper magazine and the National Genealogical Society, there are four periods of time into which most Indian records can be identified, named for policies used by non-Indians in their early dealings with the Indians. These periods are called Intermingling, Removal, Reservation, and Allotment. A fifth miscellaneous category was added for those records which do not fit into a specific time period.

The practice of mingling Indians with white society accompanied an effort to convert them to Christianity. Missionaries kept statistics on Indians they converted. In addition to basic vital statistical information, these records often provide clues to occupations and places of residence. Therefore, if and when possible, search the records of any churches which may have been active in missionary work among the tribal groups you are researching. One obstacle to make note of, however, is that when an Indian was baptized, he or she was usually given a Christian name, and only in certain cases was the Indian name recorded. Don't panic yet though. There are other ways to try and uncover Indian names you need for your family pedigree.

The removal or concentration period did not catch on, but if it had, all known Indians would have been assigned to a government-appointed district west of the Mississippi. Removal muster rolls came out of this period and are available at the National Archives.

The reservation period began about 1850 and continued through 1887. This policy confined tribes of Indians to specific areas called reservations and each indvidual tribe was to have its own reservation. As a result, a consistently kept set of records called annuity rolls was developed. Annual payments were made by the United States government under various tribal treaties. Indian heads of families were required to identify themselves to government agents and sign to indicate they had received their annual payment. Often the age and sex of each family member is given on the annuity roll. Indian censuses also originated during this time and are available for the years 1860 through 1940 or so. In addition to the population schedules conducted, school census reports were also kept by some.

Tribal Indians were not included in early federal censuses. In fact, when plans for the first federal census were made in 1787, they specifically excluded "Indians not taxed" - that is, Indians in tribes. Indians supposedly do not appear in federal census records until 1860 and it wasn't until 1890, 100 years after the first census was taken, that an effort was made to include all Indians in the population count.

New York state researchers have an added bonus. The 11th Census of the United States includes an Extra Census Bulletin on Indians of the Six Nations of New York by Thomas Donaldson, Expert Special Agent, for the year 1890. In addition to standard census data, there is also information on Indian customs, including names, marriages, religion, home and family life. For example, page 45 focuses on religion among the St. Regis Indians and one sentence alone could very well make some family history researcher very happy. It reads, "The old church records are well preserved, and since the first marriage was solemnized there, February 2, 1762, both marriages and christenings have been recorded with scrupulous care." The church is located in Candada, just over the U.S. border.

The allotment period began in 1887 and ended about 1930 and again involved the U.S. government. This time, they assigned parcels of land to Indians on an individual basis and required that the transaction be recorded in a Register of Families. These records are considered a valuable research source because they usually contain the recipient's name - both the Indian and English version - along with the ages, relationships and any allotment information regarding the parents, siblings, children, uncles, aunts, and other relatives.

Miscellaneous records, which do not fit a time period, include: a valuable set called the Sanitary Record of Sick, Injured, Births, Deaths, etc.; records of claims filed against the United States government by Indians, at the National Archives, and more recent claims at the National Records Center in Suitland, Maryland; wills, allowed only after 1910, and then only with the approval of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, at the national Archives; and private collections, including historical societies, universities, and genealogical libraries.

There are nearly a dozen New York State based publications where one could inquire about Indian ancestry. They are listed in a handy reference booklet called, A Proud Heritage, Native American Services in New York State, published in 1989 by the New York State Department of Social Services. The booklet also lists American Indian nations, reservations and libraries which could be of service to the family history researcher or someone researching Indians in general.

Some reseachers have found that genealogical interest in their forebears has led to sharing in financial settlements or educational assistance. In these cases, appeals must be filed with the Secretary of the Interior and reviewed for approval by the Tribal Enrollment Section of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Washington, D.C.

Not long ago, when it became apparent there was interest in American Indian family history research among the patrons of our research library, staff members examined the genealogy section of the library to see what information was available on the subject. As a result, a substantial amount of material has been collected and placed in a file for staff and patron use. Two itmes were found to be of particular use: How to Research American Indian Bloodlines by Cecelia Carpenter, (Heritage Quest, Inc., 1987); and How to Research a Little Bit of Indian by Afton Reintjes, (Family History World, 1989). Whenever more material is published we will make every effor to add it to our growing collection.

Deb McCaffery is library assistant at the New York State Historical Association's Research Library.

Early Naming Practices
author unknown

New England's first settlers bore names of three different types: those of English origin, those of Hebrew derivation, and those intended to have a moral significance. Old English names, connected with the Church of England, were not often favored by Puritans. Puritans named their children somewhat differently than other English-speaking settlers, preferring Biblical names.

Evidently, some parents shut their eyes, opened the Bible, and pointed to a word at random - what else could account for a child being named Notwithstanding or Maybe? The early Massachusetts Brewster family had two sons, Love and Wrestling, and two daughters named Patience and Fear. The names Humility, Desire, Hate-evil, and Faint-not also appeared in the region.

Other New England onomastic practices included obscure references and names that commemorated an oaccaision - such as Oceanus Hopkins, who was born on the Mayflower in 1620. Early settlers seemed to favor names for their associated moral qualities. In many families, the first names of the father and mother were given to the first-born son and daughter, respectively.

In the Massachusetts Bay Colony, 53 percent of all females were named Mary, Elizabeth, or Sarah. Other popular girls' names were Rebecca, Ruth, Anne, Hannah, Deborah, Huldah, Abigail, and Rachel. Meanwhile, prevalent boys' names included John, Joseph, Samuel, Josiah, Benjamin, Jonathan, and Nathan.

Indian naming customs are a challenge to Native/French/Canadian research. Indians did not have the same practice of always naming family the way Europeans did (presumably for the purpose of legally transferring propery to heirs). Sometimes Native people did use European naming practices, but not always.

It appears historically they took names according to their attributes and at different stages in theri lives. A person may have gone by one name when he was little and another when he was older, depending on his role in the tribe or other events. Others took names in honor of another person and still further, the names were compicated by the way they were pronounced and written down. Sometimes they were written down by the way they sounded in the native language, and sometimes by the way they sounded in English or French.

Native Americans were often given English names by their neighboring English settlers, and were therefore often known by two names. So too the English settlers were often given Indian names by their Native American neighbors. Note: See link below to read an article written in 1897 titled "Naming the Indians".


"Naming the Indians" article from 1897